Monday, March 30, 2015

The Wisdom of Listening

Culminating in my sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter, I will be exploring different aspects of wisdom...of listening and discerning God's call on our lives as we move through Holy Week.  This was preached on Palm Sunday, 2015.


Once again, the palms are waved.  Once again the roads are covered with cloaks and leaves.  Once again the crowd has shouted ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of The Lord!”  And once again, we have begun this holiest of weeks with the telling of the old, old story of Jesus and his love, of the cross and the crown of thorns, the cowering disciples and the comforting women. But the truth is this: none of us can truly grasp how significant, how wonderful, and how earth-changing the passion of our Lord is.  No priest, no prophet, no sage…we tell this nearly 2,000 year old story again and again, and still the depth of this mystery eludes us.

Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards. These are the words of the Suffering Servant, so often interpreted through the lens of Jesus’ suffering throughout the life of the Church.  But they are more than just prophetic utterances to be placed into the mouth of Jesus.  They emerged from the life of an entire people struggling and suffering through exile and the subsequent task of rebuilding.  They were a people without hope.  And these words, whether they were written by a man named Isaiah or not, are filled to the brim with the wisdom that comes from listening for the voice of God in the midst of struggle: The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens-- wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

It is easy to see why these words have been interpreted through the lens of Jesus’ passion.  A back given for striking, a beard given for pulling.  These are images of one who has been reduced to something less than human.  A pariah.  A social outcast.  Couple these with the events of Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem and his public execution, and it all comes together.  But as I said, these words had meaning for a people long before Jesus’ passion.  They were words of hope to those who knew all too well the destabilizing and dehumanizing nature of suffering.  But even as the words tell of a great suffering, there is something more than suffering on which to focus.  As difficult as it is to forget the images of a battered back and and disfigured beard, there is something even more profound contained in these words: the absolute conviction that God is present in the midst of suffering, and that even the worst of suffering cannot take away the grace and dignity of the children of God.

But the secret to this confidence, however tested it may become, is to maintain an awareness that God still speaks in the midst of suffering…that within even the deepest suffering is an invitation to find oneself knit ever more deeply into the heart of God.  Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards.  As storms rage, as the world seems to be crashing down, as life seems to be squeezed from our bones, the confidence to endure and grasp the deeper mysteries of God comes only through listening for the wisdom of God hidden in the midst of human experiences, as painful as they may be.  To know God, to discern what God is doing amidst the suffering we endure, we keep an open and inquisitive ear, humbly admitting before God that we cannot grasp the fullness of God’s mysteries.  Students of the deep wisdom of God.

And these prophetic words come to life not just in Jesus’ suffering, but in his anguished prayer before his betrayal: And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.  Though Jesus himself desired to escape his suffering, the humility he expressed, the abandonment of self-determination, the emptying of himself and taking the form of a slave…these things mark Jesus as one who has given himself over to the mystery of salvation, though the depth of that mystery may not have been fully known even to him.

Having this same attitude, it seems, is a good way to enter Holy Week and experience it not just as a historical remembrance, but an opportunity to delve deeper into the mystery of salvation, perhaps experiencing it as if for the first time.  With the ears of students, with the attitude of one who says, “Not what I want, but what you want”, I wonder what wisdom we might acquire if we approach this week as people truly on a journey through suffering, towards the cross.  To quote a wise monk: “For the time being, we pretend we don’t know how it all ends. For the time being, we reflect on our own hearts, we reflect on our own participation in the sordid cavalcade of the human condition. We ponder the ways we need to be restored, renewed, renovated, recreated—born again” To move too quickly to the empty tomb robs us of the opportunity to sit with our suffering, the suffering of others, and the suffering of the world, and recognizing that such suffering is shared by God in all aspects. Yes, we remain confident that “It is The Lord GOD who helps us”, but that confidence is not a barrier to more learning, to a deeper and richer experience of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In fact, such confidence enables us to live with our own pain as we live with the pain of Jesus.

*The texts were Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11, and Mark 14:1-15:47

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